Why does Athens Need a Media Guide?
Words matter, and the language that we use to talk about collisions that injure or kill people biking or walking can dangerously normalize them as acceptable and inevitable. BikeAthens produced this media guide for local journalists to use as a resource so that they may humanize the people involved in these stories and avoid the normalization of traffic violence. Below we cite a body of existing guidance from around the country and use local examples for context.
Crash not Accident
Try to use more accurately descriptive terms such as “crash” or “collision” instead of “accident.” From Bicycling:
“The use of the word ‘accident’ implies no one meant to do anything,” Roskowski says. “We use accident in just three places: car crashes, workplace accidents, and little kids getting potty-trained. We don’t use it with plane crashes, train crashes—but for some reason we jump to absolving the driver of blame with language from the beginning, and then the line of thinking goes right to, ‘that person on the bike shouldn’t have been there.’”
A local, positive example from the Athens Banner-Herald/WUGA (August 22, 2019): “University of Georgia police are investigating a recent collision between a car and bicycle at the intersection of Lumpkin and Smith streets.”
Use active voice when describing the incident. From Streetsblog:
The passive voice “conveys subtle messages about blame and responsibility,” writes Magusin, “distancing the driver from the act.” And that affects the way people perceive events and assign culpability.
For a local example, “Authorities say a 52-year-old Athens man was killed Saturday when he was struck by a vehicle along Lexington Road” (Athens Banner-Herald, September 9, 2019). Consider this active voice alternative: “Authorities say an 86-year-old motorist from Oglethorpe County struck and killed a 52-year-old Athens man who was walking along Lexington Road Saturday.”
The same ABH article goes on to say, “Sims was hit by a Nissan pickup at about 10:40 p.m. near the Johnson Drive intersection, police said,” and, “An 86-year-old motorist from Oglethorpe County was traveling east and told police he did not see the pedestrian, who was hit with the front bumper on the passenger side, according to the report.” The language throughout the article never connects the driver directly to the death of the victim: “he was struck by a vehicle,” “Sims was hit by a Nissan pickup,” and “was hit with the front bumper.”
A local example using active voice comes from Athens Banner-Herald/WUGA (August 22, 2019): “According to a police report, as the driver was making a right turn, he turned into the path of the cyclist. The cyclist struck the front passenger’s side wheelwell.”
Humanize the Victim
“Pedestrian deaths are reported as isolated incidents with no human repercussions and no link to larger systemic health and safety issues, and drivers are nearly always rhetorically and linguistically absolved from blame,” Magusin concludes. “This reflects the social reality of pedestrians, one that prioritizes vehicle traffic over pedestrian safety and enforces both physical and rhetorical car-dominance.”
Consider the September 2019 death of Willie Sims, who was killed less than two miles from his home in Athens and according to the police was walking in that direction. Where he was walking when the driver hit him is extremely inhospitable to people on foot. The Athens Banner-Herald article that describes his death lacks these details, and relies uncritically on the police report: “Police said Sims was walking west in the middle of an eastbound lane. The area is not lit well and Sims was wearing dark clothing, police said.” Which of the two lanes was he in the middle of? How do they know which direction he was walking if the driver claims not to have seen him? Why might he have been there?
Pedestrian (and cyclist) blame is the predominant framework in a lot of news coverage, according to Angie Schmitt, an editor of Streetsblog, a news site about transportation reform. Journalists will report that the victim “darted” into traffic, a verb you see almost exclusively in stories about traffic deaths. Or they’ll emphasize that the victim was jaywalking, texting while crossing the street, or not wearing a helmet.
“The helmet fixation redirects attention away from the overarching problem of vehicular violence, assisting in its denial,” according to a report released last month by the University of Heidelberg. Even in cases when a helmet would not have prevented death, the absence of one is usually noted, as in The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s 2009 coverage of the death of a young cyclist, Sylvia Bingham. Wearing a helmet would not have made a difference in the outcome of the crash, according to Bingham’s doctor. But the reporter, in the paragraph immediately following that statement, noted Bingham wasn’t wearing a helmet and included two additional incidents in which cyclists lacked them.
A local example is the joint coverage by WUGA and Athens Banner-Herald of a “right hook” crash that occurred on August 20, 2019 on the edge of the UGA campus. This was a single article written for WUGA but published by both news outlets, with subtle differences in editing.
She was taken to Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center for treatment, suffering from a broken wrist, broken neckbone and staples on her head. The cyclist was not wearing a helmet at the time.
The driver, who was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash, was ticketed in the incident.
She was taken to Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center for treatment, suffering from a broken wrist, broken neck bone and she received staples on her head.
The cyclist was not wearing a helmet at the time of the crash.
The driver was ticketed in the incident.
First note that WUGA version includes the lack of a helmet in the paragraph about the victim’s injuries, while the ABH version separates that detail from the context.
The other difference is that WUGA included the detail about the driver wearing their seatbelt. One has to assume this was to provide balance to mentioning the victim’s helmet choice.
The WUGA version is preferable due to context, but it is important to ask whether the seatbelt and helmet use are relevant at all. First, the driver broke the law in their failure to yield, and wearing a seatbelt (while required by law) had nothing to do with the cause or outcome of the crash. Second, it is not indicated whether the driver signaled their turn (also required by law) or if they were cited for distracted driving, both of which are important factors in the cause of the crash. Finally, absence of a helmet, which is not required by law in Georgia for anyone over 16, did not cause the crash. It is not known whether a helmet would have prevented the victim’s injuries.
Cited on this Page
- How Coverage of Pedestrian Fatalities Dehumanizes Victims and Absolves Drivers (Streetsblog 2018)
- Five Cyclist-Blaming Headlines—And How to Reframe Them (Bicycling 2015)
- When Covering Car Crashes, Be Careful not to Blame the Victim (Columbia Journalism Review 2018)
- Conclusive Evidence: How the Media Fails Bicyclists (Streetsblog 2018)
- Studies on Media Coverage of Bike and Pedestrian Crashes Reveal Bias (Planetizen 2019)